Connecting the TikTok dots in 2 murders that shook Delhi
No one had heard of TikTok in Najafgarh police station in south-west Delhi until May 21. At 4pm that day, a young man was shot down in the local market, and TikTok was among the last words uttered by his killers. Twenty-seven-year-old Mohit Mor was sitting in a photocopy shop and scrolling through his smartphone when two young men barged in wearing helmets, pointed guns at him, and said, “Let us make you a TikTok star.” They fired so many bullets into him that even his teeth were found in pieces when the police came.
“I had never seen TikTok. I had seen short clips of kids making funny faces. These clips keep going around on WhatsApp, but I didn’t know that they came from TikTok. I asked around. No one I knew did either,” said Pradeep Rawat, investigating officer of this case.
By the time he was killed, Mor was already a star on TikTok, the Chinese-owned short video-based social media app rocking the world of teenagers and twenty-somethings. It’s currently the fourth most downloaded social app in India. It ranked number one before being banned by the Madras High Court on April 3 on charges of making its young users vulnerable to abuse. (The ban was lifted a few weeks later.)
Mor’s TikTok profile had over 500,000 followers and 5.9 million “hearts” at the time of his death, and he had only been on the platform for eight months. He had apparently cracked the code of TikTok success. His persona of Haryanvi bad boy with a good heart was close to his real self, and he laboured to make every post better than the last: more emotion, more entertainment, more attitude.
In one skit, he got out of his car and offered his expensive shoes to a homeless man who had broken his slippers. In another skit, he told a “bhai” (don), in Haryanvi dialect, that he could break “the 206 bones in human body and the 1,670 laws in Indian Constitution”. When he wasn’t being intense, he sang, danced, shared jokes, and showed off his gym-built body. The point was to keep up the pace. As he let everyone know in a video posted days before his murder, “Listen up, people. Whether or not you give me views, whether or not you make me viral, I am going to blast TikTok with videos.”
Thousands of people were watching his videos; some even recognised him on the streets. “Wherever he went, in Najafgarh or in Dwarka, people asked him for selfies. Girls and boys wanted to be in his videos. TikTok is the most popular app among the youth here. The whole world is crazy about it, in fact,” said Aman, who goes by one name.
Aman used to go to a local gym where Mor worked as a trainer. Mor was sitting in Aman’s family’s photocopy shop when he was confronted by his assailants. “I was printing out his profile photos for him at that time,” he said. He is currently being treated for shrapnel wounds. The hired shooters have been arrested.
Investigations revealed no clear links between Mor’s TikTok stardom and his killing. “Criminals ke saath uthta-baithta tha [he used to hang out with criminals],” said the investigating officer, Rawat. But in Najafgarh, where criminal gangs and their turf wars are in the news every day, his social life caused no concern. Recently, though, he had got involved in a real mess.
Mohit Mor had helped a friend invest Rs 30 lakh in property through someone in his criminal network. Mor’s friend died, and his friends wanted the money back. Mor wasn’t being helpful, so they paid a criminal gang to go after him. Mor sought protection from a rival gang. The back-and-forth ended with him lying dead in the photocopy shop with 17 bullet injuries. He didn’t die because of TikTok, but his popularity made it easy for his enemies to find and finish him.
Mohit Mor wasn’t the only TikTok star in Najafgarh. The police officers find it hard to believe that a “non-celebrity” could be followed by half a million people, but for youngsters in Najafgarh, the numbers are no big deal. What matters to them is that it took Mor just a few months to get there. Some of them rattle off the names of their friends who are followed by hundreds of thousands; some are busy scouring the narrow streets and old houses for suitable spots to make their own videos. Everyone is aiming for at least a million. “Kids just like us have 20 million followers,” said Aman, swiping through his TikTok feed while in bed with a bandaged ankle.
Similar ambition is enabling hundreds of 15-second videos every day in Delhi’s remotest corners. The girls mainly showcase their talent (singing, dancing, acting) to become famous; the boys often show off their swagger -- bikes, cars, muscles, stunts. Some of them go farther.
On 13 April, when 19-year-old Salman Zakir drove out of north-west Delhi’s Jafrabad with two friends from his colony, it was supposed to be a usual Saturday-evening hangout. They had a nice luxury car for the day, borrowed from Salman’s brother-in-law, and they were circling India Gate while listening to loud music. What made their hang-out not so usual was the fact that one of them was holding a gun to another’s head at one point. Between 9pm and 10pm, Sohail Malik, Salman’s 20-year-old neighbour who sat next to him, pulled the trigger, sending the bullet deep into Salman’s skull.
“They were trying to make TikTok videos. He had this illegal gun with him, and he says they were only posing for camera but he fired the gun by mistake,” said Dara Singh, investigating officer of the case at Barakhamba police station. He says the police have looked into various possibilities of this not being an accidental murder. “We asked around if there was any enmity between families or if they were fighting over girls, but couldn’t find anything. We even wondered if the deceased was harassing Sohail’s sister, but he has no sister. We couldn’t find any motivation,” Singh said. Other than one 15-second video.
“They were apparently just having fun. Sohail was very active on TikTok. Salman was a college dropout. Both the boys were handsome. They had good physiques. But they weren’t mentally mature,” Singh said. Sohail and Salman’s other friend, who was seated in the rear seat, are currently in jail. Singh has yet to establish why Sohail carried an illegal gun and pointed it at his friend while it was loaded. “That remains a mystery.”
Closure is far away for Salman’s family. They can’t even believe he is dead, let alone make peace with the TikTok angle. Singh said that when Salman’s father, Mohammed Shakir, was questioned just after the shooting, he denied any bad blood between the young men or their families. “He said Salman and Sohail knew each other since their childhoods and the families visited each other,” Singh said. Some days later, though, Shakir filed a police complaint making a series of allegations. He alleged that Salman and Sohail had a parking fight just a few days before the incident and that Sohail had threatened Salman with revenge. He also alleged that Sohail’s father runs a gold-smuggling operation, and that he and his older son conspired with Sohail to kill Salman. “The family can’t digest the idea that their son died because of TikTok,” Singh said.
“What is TikTok? It’s something to play with, right? Who kills someone in the middle of play,” asked Shakir, sitting among well-wishers in Jafrabad and going through the details of that night once again. He says he found out about the parking fight after he was initially questioned by the police. “Why did they not take Salman’s body to the hospital right away? Why did they first change their clothes and hid them? Seedha-seedha katl hai [it’s a straightforward murder],” said Aamir, Salman’s uncle.
Closure isn’t easy for Mor’s fans either. While many of them are leaving comments under his videos expressing their grief (“Bhai, can’t believe you are no more”), some are creating fan accounts to post videos remembering Mor. A few of these videos recreate the scene of his murder, adding dramatic touches right out of cheap thrillers: a man walks in slow motion, a shooter appears from nowhere, loud shots, police sirens, an attractive woman, a red rose…
Some of these videos are trending on TikTok.